byNWR: Is Nicolas Winding Refn’s streaming service a modern cult classic?
Ivan Radford | On 12, Aug 2018
“What’s needed is art,” Nicolas Winding Refn wrote recently in an op-ed setting out the aims for his new site, byNWR. For Winding Refn, the director Only God Forgives and Drive, the word “art” doesn’t mean what he considers the “trivial and banal” output of the modern entertainment industry, but the independent, unruly work of decades past. It’s an argument he exaggerates for effect, you suspect, but then again, Winding Refn is an artist prone to exaggeration.
His heightened work has always felt like something out of time, whether its the Kubrick-tinged Bronson or the neon-lit Drive. Even the existential Viking epic Valhalla Rising is accompanied by the kind of retro-synth soundtrack that helped pave the way for a wave of genre movies all sharing a nostalgic love of a certain time and style in the past. Refn’s nostalgia, though, is less a quaint affection or warm regard and more a frenzied bloodlust – not unlike Quentin Tarantino, he’s the kind of man you would expect to have a collection of questionable grindhouse movies on VHS in his living room, with a VCR that plays them every night on a loop. And that’s exactly what we get with byNWR, a platform that drags that sensibility and taste (Sex! Danger! Shock! Sex!) into the modern age – it’s Nicolas Winding Refn on-demand, his passion distilled into scantily, digitally clad ones and zeroes.
It takes a lot of effort to set up your own streaming service, especially one with a unique proposition and unseen content. It also takes a lot of ego. Refn is happy to provide both in large supply, and so it’s no surprise that his mission to deliver “good, challenging art, not good-taste art” unto the world takes us into a universe of similarly megalomaniacal filmmakers from cinema’s seedy, forgotten history, the kind of people who backed their own productions and put their names all over the jobs in the credits. It’s a cult streaming platform, and carries all the fervour that word implies.
The site splits things into “Volumes”, each one released on a quarterly basis. Volume 1, fittingly for one of the hottest summers in memory, is a steamy triple bill of Southern Gothic sleaze. There’s Bert Williams’ The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds from 1965 (a undercover agent is sent to infiltrate bootleggers in the Florida Everglades, but winds up lost a decrepit hotel caught between melodrama and horror), K. Gordon Murray’s 1967 Shanty Tramp (a small-town Southern prostitute has to decide between her lust for a black man and the revival-tent preacher who’s just rolled into town), and Dale Berry’s 1967 Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (a gang leader of a trio of hoodlum gals looking to make one last big score, run away with a mess of diamonds).
The merits of the movies are at once deceptive and debatable – you can read our reviews of byNWR’s selected movies here – but what’s without any doubt is Winding Refn’s fixation on them, and it’s something that’s clearly infectious; on this journey into seed, he’s bringing with him a collection of guest editors, starting with biographer Jimmy McDonough. McDonough’s Volume is titled Regional Renegades, and he’s the perfect choice to bring to life this niche of America: the supporting work created and commissioned by the writer vividly depicts the lives of trailblazing outsiders from the region and period. He charts the story of rocker Margaret Doll Rod, publishes essays from exotic dancers and sex workers, and a trio of true crime accounts called “Murder Is My Beat”. It’s the kind of content that is served up “straight, no chaser”, and the kind of website where that’s said with a straight face.
Alongside the writing is an admirable collection of multimedia, under the heading “Expressway” – Winding Refn refers to his site as a “cultural expressway” – which ranges from a photo gallery of Dale Berry’s clothes, the most overt example of Refn’s fetish for these filmmakers, to Margaret Doll Rod’s band performing songs to camera (in 3D, no less). Country legend Frankie Miller’s 30-minute set from his living room is much more successful, while other standout offerings include preservation specialist Peter Conheim providing digestible historical and technical context through a series of essays called “The Restorationists”, and avant-garde musician Stephen Thrower exploring the fascinating history of Luke Moberly’s Empire Studios in 60s and 70s Florida.
It’s here that byNWR works best: shining a light onto a dark corner of film that doesn’t exactly gleam, and providing a window onto Nicolas Winding Refn’s headspace that doesn’t so much open up as defenestrate you, head-first. The movie themselves are uneven, and Refn’s dedicated work that has gone into restoring the negatives for streaming doesn’t always feel deserved (Volume 2 in September will feature Dennis Hopper’s enjoyable debut Night Tide, which marks a step up in quality). The viewing platform itself is also in its early days: the ability to change streaming quality causes a title to restart from the beginning, the kind of frustrating functionality that’s just about compensated for by the choice of German, French and Spanish subtitles (as well as English).
While playing these movies may not always reward – the site’s swiping menus work best on mobile devices – the experience of byNWR overall justifies its existence: if you’re going to spend your evening watching dubious, exploitative cinema, this is the way to do it. The graphic-heavy interface is slick, with each image, when hovered over, rotating and expanding like they’re titles from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the whole thing is designed to be just labyrinthine enough to get lost in without becoming annoyed.
Most important of all is the fact that there’s no data-mining or commercial objectives powering this endeavour: for better and for worse, Nicolas Winding Refn’s slavering intentions are pure, with the whole lot available for free to stumble into one sweaty Sunday afternoon. “You’re not being sold anything,” the director wrote in his recent mission statement. “Take it or leave it.” Those who choose to take it will find themselves a parallel place to explore for hours and days. Whether this art is needed by anyone apart from Refn is almost besides the point: to survive, this art needs him.